Comment

In search of a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol

Andrew Grice / Jan 2022

Photo: European Union, 2022

Liz Truss will be in Brussels on Monday (24 January) for talks with Maroš Sefčovič, the European Commission Vice-President. There was a time when a visit by a UK Foreign Secretary would not raise eyebrows but in recent years their brief trips have been for NATO rather than EU matters. 

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) was frozen out of the Brexit process after the 2016 referendum but is now back in charge of EU policy after last month’s resignation of Tory peer David Frost as Europe Minister. At the top of Truss’s EU in-tray is the vexed question of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  

She has insisted that UK policy has not changed, and before meeting Sefčovič at her Chevening country retreat in Kent last week, reiterated Frost’s threat to trigger Article 16 to suspend all or part of the Protocol. Despite that, the mood music in London is very different to what it was under Frost, as EU sources acknowledged after Sefčovič's overnight stay at Chevening.  Although the two negotiators did not get into detail, they staked out the ground in a positive and constructive way. 

It is true that the detail could still prove very tricky. However, Brussels officials believe the EU’s threat to respond with tough sanctions has deterred the UK government from taking the Article 16 route. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s deepening crisis as he fights to remain Prime Minister has weakened his appetite for a confrontation with the EU – for now, at least. A trade war on top of disruptions caused by coronavirus and Brexit would not be a good lock for a government facing a cost-of-living crisis. 

Amid growing signs Johnson could be ousted by Tory MPs in a vote of confidence, some at Westminster believed Truss -- who, with the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, is one of the two front-runners to succeed him -- would take a tough line with Brussels to pander to Brexiteers whose voted she might soon need in a Tory leadership contest.  Some Eurosceptics initially doubted Truss’s credentials because she backed Remain in 2016.  She now regrets that, saying she underestimated the UK’s post-Brexit freedoms, and certainly displayed the zeal of the convert as International Trade Secretary.  The hardliners were reassured by the appointment of Chris Heaton-Harris, a former chair of the European Research Group (ERG), as Minister of State for Europe, who will shoulder a lot of the spadework on EU matters. 

Truss will need all her presentational skills to win round Eurosceptics to support a deal on the Protocol; it would have been easier for Frost to “sell” an agreement to them. She could find herself in the uncomfortable position of Frost criticising her deal.

Despite such risks, one Truss ally said: “She wants an agreement.” They insisted she will look at the wider geopolitical canvass, where her priorities are Russia and China-- on which the EU is a natural ally.  If she sticks to this approach, then shifting Brexit policy to the Foreign Office might in time lead to the more sensible UK-EU relationship that mainstream Tory MPs want.  This would mark a decisive break with viewing Brussels as the enemy in Frost’s aggressive, “zero sum game” approach that viewed a win for the UK as a defeat for the EU, allowing little space for co-operation to mutual benefit.

The Foreign Secretary will want some additions or tweaks to the Protocol proposals tabled by Sefčovič in October and there are fears in London that Emmanuel Macron will be a block to any further EU concessions. Unlike Frost, Truss is unlikely to die in the ditch to remove the European Court of Justice’s role in disputes over the Protocol. Aides say her priorities will be issues on the ground in Northern Ireland that matter to its people and businesses, such as customs checks. 

The other obstacle to a deal might be Johnson. His allies insist he, rather than Frost, is the keenest advocate of deploying Article 16, saying the incendiary move cannot be ruled out if he weathers the storm now battering him. 

If Johnson falls, then negotiations on the Protocol would be paused until his successor is chosen by Tory Party members. Although Brussels-bashing might be in fashion during the leadership contest, Johnson’s departure might finally allow the UK government to “move on” from Brexit and usher in an era of smoother relations with its neighbours. 

Andrew Grice

Andrew Grice

January 2022

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